The flying lawbook

Published 2:13 pm Friday, December 3, 2010

One would never consider a book a lethal weapon.

Yet, if you have ever tried personally to send a book to a prison inmate, if it’s a hardback, the prison staffer who opens the package for inspection, will either trash the book or return it to sender.

A hardback book among the prisoner population wrapped in a pillow case is where the lethal definition comes in.

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Take for example a law book, one of those large volume law books with a thousand pages or more, with a firm and heavy front and back cover. It’s a fact that prisoners must have access to the prison law library, and can check out law books, But the law book concealed inside a pillow case, when it is slammed up beside a fellow inmates’ head or even a guard, can do some effective damage.

If you know someone in prison, and you want to send them some books, the rules usually require they be mailed from a bookstore. Those of us who own bookstores, are quite unlikely to stick contraband within the pages of the book, as perhaps someone with ill-gotten gains on their mind would do.

So when we pack up books to prisoners, we are sure to check that none may be classified or described lethal weapons.

We have also discovered that there are changing rules from each institution. Most won’t let a prisoner accept more than four books in a shipment, or would allow only so many books per month.

Some prisoners get around that rule by having the sender address their books to a bunkmate.

We have had books returned because that particular day when the mail arrived, the prison employee who normally handles the inmate mail, was off that day, and all deliveries not first class mail, were returned to sender.

There have been customers who have come in to report that their inmate relative complained that they never received their books at all.

Those who send books to inmates are usually parents or spouses. They have come in with lists of books the inmate desires. Sometimes they bring in their own stack and ask that we mail it.

Several years ago, a mom and dad would come in the store about once a month on a Saturday to select some books for their young son who was an inmate at Decatur County Prison.

This lasted for some time. They would drive in from a small town about 150 miles away, visit their son at the prison, then go back home. They couldn’t take the books to him, because the rule said they must originate from a bookstore. So, it was usually on a Monday when the package got to the post office for shipment.

It has been some time since I saw them, so a suspect the son has served his time and now is allowed to vote again.

But I could tell from these people that the thought of their son in our local jail was an extremely trying experience and hardship for them. They were as pleasant as they could be, people of good character from a middle class home. But I could see a weariness on their faces, especially the mother. She rarely smiled. Her voice was full of hurt and defeat, a heavy burden to carry.

It’s really none of our business the circumstances of the family’s inmate. It’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell rule.” We don’t ask, they don’t tell, and they don’t offer explanations.

It’s always tempting to stick you nose into their personal business and ask, “What has he done, how much longer will he be there, when does he get out?”

Yes, we have to be careful. Some inmates understand that all books are not meant for reading, so we have to be careful what is mailed to them from bookstores.

But as one prison guard told me, “I’d rather see them reading a book, with something to do, because if they don’t have something to do, they’ll find something.”